This year’s flu epidemic has been extremely challenging, with a high number of hospitalizations and flu-related deaths. The influenza or flu is caused by a virus, a teeny, tiny infectious agent smaller than a bacterium, as can be seen in the illustration below.
The word “virus” is derived from the Latin word vīrus, which means poison; sap of plants; slimy liquid. First used in the 14th century, the word sometimes referred to a foul-smelling or poisonous fluid. Its more modern meaning of being “an agent that causes infectious disease” has been used since 1728. I was instantly struck by this 290-year-old definition, for viruses were not themselves identified until the late 1800’s.
This seemed like the perfect time to examine the literature published during the so-called long Regency period. (You may recall that Jane Austen was born in 1775 and died in 1817.) I searched 26 medical books and periodicals, using the search term “virus.” The earliest document I searched was Medical Transactions, published in 1772; most of the others were published between 1807 and 1821—roughly 75–125 years before the Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck demonstrated (in 1898) that an agent smaller than a bacterium—what he called a virus—caused tobacco mosaic disease.
In a time before the word “germ” came into use in the 1880’s, before the germ theory of disease was understood and accepted, how did the Regency world view viruses? Here’s what I learned about the use of the word “virus” during Jane Austen’s day:
Comments in Dictionaries and Cyclopaedias
Cooper’s 1809 edition of A Dictionary of Practical Surgery contains no separate entry for “virus.”1 Nor is there an entry for “virus” in his 1823 edition.2 These facts confirm that the idea of a virus as a specific pathogen did not exist during the Regency era.
Rather, Regency medical men used the word “virus” to refer to some poisonous or noxious substance not yet identified. For instance, the 1809 edition of Cooper’s dictionary mentions the absorption of a “cancerous virus” as the cause of cancer.3 A section on gonorrhea considers whether the “poison of gonorrhea and the venereal virus [i.e., syphilis]” are the same.4
A Grammar of Medicine, published in 1813, indicates that the presence of a “syphilitic virus” is often followed by a case of scrofula.5 (Today we know scrofula as tuberculosis cervical lymphadenitis; it is caused by a mycobacterium). It also indicates that the “venereal virus” contributes to the formation of a bubo, a swelling of the lymph notes that can arise in syphilis, gonorrhea, and other diseases.6 (Syphilis and gonorrhea are caused by separate species of bacteria, not viruses.)
The word “virus” appears in several definitions found in the London Medical Dictionary of 1809. The “venereal virus” is mentioned in the definition of both “bubo” and “chancre” (or canker)7—no surprise there, for both terms refer to clinical signs of venereal disease.
The “smallpox virus” is mentioned in the discussion of “cutaneous morbi,” which refers to infected disorders of the skin such as pimples, rashes, pustules and spots.8 A “specific virus” that irritates the mucous membrane of the intestinal tract is mentioned as a cause of diarrhea.9
The description of erysipelas also mentions a virus: “The causes of erysipelas are the same with those of all febrile conditions, an acrimonious discharge, stopped by the cuticle, and exciting inflammation on the skin.”10 Erysipelas is a deep skin rash, usually found on the face or legs.
Perhaps the strangest use of the word “virus” was described under “bufo.” The text indicates that the bufo toad, when gently dried and powdered, was at one time used as a diuretic. It was also applied live to cancers as a means of “sucking the virus” out of the animal body. The latter practice was discontinued because it was said to be fatal to the animal.11 And thus medical science advanced!
- The Regency-era word “virus” did not have quite the same meaning that it has today. In Jane Austen’s day, a virus was a “specific acrimony”12 or “poisonous quality”13 or a “contagious or malignant pus”14 that caused an inflammation or disease.
- Today we identify a virus as one of several pathogens that cause disease.
- Scrofula, syphilis, gonorrhea, and erysipelas are each caused by a bacterium, not a virus.
- Smallpox is caused by a virus.
- Research shows that both viruses and bacteria (among many other things) can cause cancer.
1Cooper, Samuel. A Dictionary of Practical Surgery. (London, 1809), p. 734 (PDF p. 751).
2Cooper, Samuel. A Dictionary of Practical Surgery, vol. II. (London, 1823), p. 635 (PDF p. 644).
3Cooper, 1809, p. 147 (PDF p. 164).
4Ibid., p. 320 (PDF p. 337).
5Anon. A Grammar of Medicine. (London, 1813), p. 174 (PDF p. 205).
6Ibid., p. 184 (PDF p. 215).
7Parr, Bartholomew. The London Medical Dictionary, vol. I. (London, 1809), pp. 288 and 407 (PDF pp. 315 and 432).
8Ibid., pp. 525-526 (PDF pp. 550-551).
9Ibid., p. 558 (PDF p. 583).
10Ibid., p. 626 (PDF p. 651).
11Ibid., p. 293 (PDF p. 320).
12Carmichael, Richard. An Essay on the Nature of Scrofula. (London, 1810), p. 66 (PDF p. 85).
13Hunter, John. A Treatise on the Venereal Disease. (London, 1786), p. 12 (PDF p. 29).
14Rees, Abraham. The Cyclopaedia; or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature. (London, 1819), PDF p. 259.